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Report: Herbal remedy boom threatens plants

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LONDON, England (Reuters) -- Worldwide demand for herbal remedies is threatening natural habitats and endangering up to a fifth of wild medicinal plant species which are being harvested to extinction, a leading science magazine said.

A study to be published later this year by the conservation organization WWF warns that between 4,000 and 10,000 plants may be at risk.

"It's an extremely serious problem," study author Alan Hamilton told New Scientist magazine on Wednesday.

According to the research, the market for herbal remedies has risen by 10 percent a year for the past decade in North America and Europe and is now thought to be worth at least 11 billion pounds ($20 billion).

The findings are based on an analysis of the number of species at risk on the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of threatened plants. Two-thirds of the 50,000 medicinal plants being used are harvested from the wild.

Hamilton, a member of the IUCN's Medicinal Plant Specialist Group, also contributed to a report which will be unveiled by the conservation organization Plantlife International next week.

Among the threatened plants are tetu lakha, a tree found in south India and Sri Lanka and used for anti-cancer drugs in Europe; an Indian root called saw-wort which is used for skin disorders and tendrilled fritillary, a Chinese plant used to treat respiratory infections.

"With demand and commercialization growing fast, the future of the wild plants which have helped most of humanity for centuries is now more uncertain than it has ever been," Martin Harper, of Plantlife, told New Scientist.

The group, which says the problem has been looming for years, blames the herbal medicinal industry for not guaranteeing the sustainability of supplies.

"It is time for the industry to join forces with environmental organizations to ensure that herbal harvests have a sustainable future," Harper added.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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